Fairfax County school officials want to make vegetables delectable for students.
The school system plans to introduce fresh fruit and vegetable bars in all middle and high schools in the next three years, part of a larger initiative the Food and Nutrition Services department announced Monday to bring healthier food to school cafeterias.
The action plan presented to the School Board followed an in-depth report on the school system’s food preparation and policy. Now, school officials are going to take some of the recommendations from that report and turn them into reality at county schools.
The expansion of the fruit and vegetable bar program, currently being tested at four schools, is the most visible piece of the initiative.
The first such station opened at Marshall High School at the start of the school year, and features fresh fruit and vegetables in a salad bar-style array, as well as a selection of soups, deli sandwiches and wraps. Similar programs have since been put in place at Edison High School, Lake Braddock Secondary School and South County Middle School.
The Food and Nutrition Services department plans to expand the pilot program to 10 more schools in the 2014-15 school year, then to all high schools in 2015-16, and finally to all middle schools in 2016-17, according to Penny McConnell, director of Food and Nutrition Services.
Members of Real Food for Kids, a group of parents advocating for healthier food in schools, applauded the decision.
“What we’re seeing is recognition that schools must focus on the well-being of the whole child,” said Mary Porter, the chairman of RFFK. “The responsibility is not only academics but also health and diet.”
However, Amy Hubal, the operations coordinator of the school system’s food services, questioned whether such a program would be financially prudent.
The fresh fruit and vegetable bars cost the school system more for food and labor than traditional lunches, and so far, the participation does not justify the output, according to Hubal. At Marshall, the “Statesman Station,” the catchy moniker given to the fruit and vegetable bar, serves 39 students each day on average. Triple that number opt for the traditional lunch line.
“Looking at the amount of real estate we’ve taken up and the cost that we invested in that, I’m not sure about the return on investment,” Hubal said.
But JoAnne Hammermaster, RFFK executive director, said the problem falls in the logistics.
“Right now the problem at Marshall is that kids can’t get through the line,” Hammermaster said. “Kids like the food, and they want to eat it, but it’s the delivery. That’s no reason to scrap the program. It just needs fine-tuning.“
Students have limited time to eat, Hammermaster explained, so some of them cannot or choose not to wait in a longer line. The school system plans to work this year on how to streamline the process of moving students through the line.
Some School Board members want to see more than just the food lines streamlined. School Board member Elizabeth Schultz was among those advocating for a faster rollout of the fresh fruit and vegetable bars to all schools.
“The rollout probably will be even faster than that projection,” McConnell said. “But we didn’t want to overextend in our goal.”
The school system does have other changes it plans to start implementing immediately, including expanded menu options. And the changes do not end in the cafeteria. FCPS also will focus on increasing communication with families through new interactive lunch menus online and in the school mobile app.
School Board member Ryan McElveen (At-large) said he looked forward to seeing the innovations put in place.
“Whenever I talk to students, they always ask me what we are doing to improve school food,” McElveen said. “They are so happy to know there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”